How to Freelance While Working Full-Time—Without Getting in Big TroubleBy Jess Shanahan September 22nd, 2021
I knew I’d made a mistake when my boss called me into her office and I noticed my freelance website up on her screen. We’d never discussed if I could freelance alongside my full-time job—but I’d been doing it since day one.
As it turns out, freelancing itself wasn’t necessarily a problem. But my company didn’t like that I was offering a service identical to one they provided (public relations). My intention was to pass that kind of work back to my employers, but I’d never looped my bosses in on that plan. To them, it looked like I was primed to steal potential clients. While I didn’t get fired, I left shortly after to fully dedicate myself to freelance writing.
With both trends of working multiple jobs and freelancing on the rise, more and more professionals are finding themselves navigating similar situations. Here are a few of the do’s and don’ts I learned through my experience, as well as insights from others walking the full-time/freelance tightrope.
Consider both legal and personal limitations
Your first consideration should be conflicts of interest—this was the big factor that I overlooked. It’s also a good idea to thoroughly review your employment contract to get an understanding of what is or isn’t technically allowed, and make a judgment call from there. If a freelance side gig might get you fired, you’ll need to weigh that risk carefully.
Up until 2019, Tom Bourlet worked 12 hours every week on freelance gigs in addition to his normal job as a marketing manager. As an eager writer, he battled the temptation to go all-in on the juggling act. “Initially, I would be highly motivated on Monday and work long into the night, but by Wednesday, I’d want to give it all up,” Bourlet said. “It was important to work out that balance.”
However you find the time to freelance while employed, avoid taking on too much. You don’t have to reach full burnout and exhaustion for your work quality to start to slip, which can cause problems with both your full-time manager and freelance clients.
Know your worth
Freelancing with a full-time job can be worthwhile, but only if you know your worth. This is part of a never-ending internal conversation freelancers often have about what to charge. (Contently publishes a rate menu that can serve as helpful guidance here.)
I struggled significantly when I first went freelance because I was charging around $0.06 per word. Of course, there were companies out there willing to take advantage of that low rate, but I could never land the big, exciting jobs. It took me longer than I would’ve liked to realize that reputable businesses are looking for quality and expertise—something they trust they’re getting when you charge a higher rate.
Manage your time in a way that suits you
Working out how to manage your time as a freelancer is a process. Writer Andy Jensen, who works full-time for the U.S. Department of Services, learned this the hard way. “Early on with Contently, I’d send a dozen or more ideas to editors for each pitch request,” he said. “That was great for my finances, but hard on my schedule and blood pressure when they accepted three-quarters of them and all were due in a week.”
Time management can indeed be tricky when you’re essentially working two jobs. What I found most difficult was balancing deadlines with the time of day I was most productive. Some freelancers work best early in the morning, but others come alive at night—and if you’re in the latter group, all that advice about getting up at 5 a.m. to work on your side hustle isn’t helpful. Ultimately, it’s about finding what works for you.
Over the years, Jensen has honed his process. “Working the side-grind on a break or lunch used to be my thing, but now I strictly save freelancing for nights and weekends,” he said, adding that he occasionally checks LinkedIn or emails during his nine-to-five. Still, he separates the real “work” for when he’s able to fully commit his attention.
“It was great for my finances, but hard on my schedule and blood pressure.”
He also implements strategies to stay organized. “I’ve learned I need to use all available resources—paper calendars, lists, and schedules are my go-to. My desk is a paper-covered nightmare, but I understand where I’m at, and that’s what matters,” he said.
Appreciate the wins
Some people take on freelance jobs to explore creative work in a field they love. For instance, William Byrd, who works in a government job unrelated to writing, pens freelance pieces about a subject he enjoys—the automotive industry. “While I don’t make a ton as a freelancer, it is extra income that certainly helps,” he said. “I love cars so much that I would do it for free.”
For others, freelancing is about topping up income or saving for a big purchase. Canadian writer Dan Croutch, also an IT and facilities manager in the healthcare industry, noted that freelancing has helped alleviate financial stress—in one case, it enabled a family trip to Florida.
“Freelancing was a refreshing break from my daily work and a chance to earn extra cash.”
Jensen has a similar story: “Ten years ago, we struggled to purchase a four-year-old [car],” he said. “Last month we bought a brand new, loaded hybrid. Saving to put 15 percent down was a non-issue—that was all money from freelancing.”
There’s also the possibility that freelancing will open doors for future career moves. Angela Tague, a journalist and content writer, stepped away from her full-time job at a local newspaper after freelancing on the weekends made her realize she relished running her own business. “[At first,] freelancing was a refreshing break from my daily work and a chance to earn extra cash,” she said. “Little did I know it would give me a taste of small business ownership.”
No matter the reasons why you freelance while employed, it’s important to celebrate the wins, whether it’s hitting an income goal or getting to write about a beloved hobby.
Freelancing with a full-time job requires discipline, but it can also be lucrative and enjoyable. Overcoming impostor syndrome, figuring out a schedule that works for you, and learning the art of pitching are all part of the journey.Image by erhui1979